Sweetwater Trustee Pearl Quiñones, who for months has maintained her innocence in what the District Attorney’s Office has characterized as the largest public corruption case in San Diego County, pleaded guilty Tuesday to one felony charge of conspiracy to commit a crime and one misdemeanor conflict of interest charge.
“Is that because you unlawfully conspired with others to commit the crime offering valuable things to a member of the governing board school district? Is that true?” San Diego Superior Court Judge Ana Espana asked Quiñones about her change of plea.
“Yes,” Quiñones said hesitantly.
In pleading guilty to the misdemeanor, Quiñones admits she did not appropriately report receiving gifts as a member of the school board.
Deputy District Attorney Leon Schorr said prosecutors may not seek incarceration in exchange for Quiñones’ plea.
“Our understanding is that alternatives to custody will be considered,” Schorr said.
Espana said Quiñones can have her conspiracy charge reduced to a misdemeanor upon completion of three years probation.
When District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis indicted Quiñones and a number of other current and former Sweeetwater school officials in 2012, each defendant faced multiple charges.
Tuesday’s proceedings saw Quiñones admit to wrongdoing on just two counts.
Quiñones would not comment after the court proceeding and directed all queries to her attorney.
“Pearl Quiñones had admitted she made an error in judgment as a board member at Sweetwater, that she entered a plea agreement with the district attorney which allows her a reduction to a misdemeanor at closure of probation,” attorney Marc Carlos said. “She looks forward to closing an unfortunate chapter in her life and is ready to move on.”
Sweetwater district spokesman Manny Rubio said Quiñones would have to resign her post as a board member because she pleaded guilty to a felony.
Rubio said the district will need to consult with the San Diego County Office of Education to decide what the next step is in filling a vacant seat, as they did earlier this year when former school board member Arlie Ricasa resigned after pleading guilty in the same case.
Rubio said the district is trying to determine when Quiñones’ resignation will go into effect and said the board still can conduct its regular business without her because it has a quorum.
According to the relevant section of Government Code 1770, an office becomes vacant when trial judgment is entered after an official is convicted of any offense involving a violation of his or her official duties.
Music Watson, chief communications officer for the San Diego County Office of Education, said Quiñones can still serve on the board until the judge accepts her plea in sentencing or if she were to resign before then.
Watson said when the office is officially vacant, the Sweetwater Union High School District school board must have all three remaining members present and all decisions must be made unanimously.
Once Quiñones resigns, the board may choose to appoint someone to her seat or call for an election, Watson said.
Watson said the district has until May 13 to make the decision to appoint or go forward with an election.
Whether board members decide to appoint or conduct an election, the seat will be on the November 2014 ballot because Quiñones’ term goes through 2016, Watson said.
Watson said the county office will support the school district in any decision it makes.
Quiñones has been a Sweetwater board member since 2000. She is scheduled to be sentenced April 28, the same day a trial set for the remaining five defendants — board president Jim Cartmill, trustee Bertha Lopez, former superintendant Jesus Gandara, ex-board member Greg Sandoval and president of Seville Construction Jeff Flores is supposed to start.
This story was updated March 21, 2014 at 1:29 p.m.